Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Transitioning of blog to new site -

I am combining this blog with the environmental jobs/internship/fellowships opportunities blog and transitioning it to a wordpress platform.  It will now be accessible at  Please check there for recent posts  (though it is still a work-in-progress, so please bear with me).

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mysteries, Myths, and Misunderstandings: Ten things that every American environmental professional should know about China before engaging with the world’s second-largest economy

Here is an essay/commentary of mine that will be published in the Environmental Forum in March:

Op-Ed in run-up to Paris Climate Agreement

Here  is an op-ed that was published back in December 2015 in run-up to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Former EPA General Counsel Scott Fulton to Serve as Next President of Environmental Law Institute

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Encyclical Released

The Papal Encyclical on the Environment and Climate Change was released today, as expected.

A quick perusal indicates that it is pretty much the same as the leaked draft.  Chapter 5 discusses international environmental law and governance extensively, generally mentioning the 2012 Rio+20 Conference (para. 169) and praising the 1992 Rio Declaration (para. 167) as well as three international environmental agreements (para. 168)-- the 1989 Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes, 1972 CITES, and the 1985 Vienna Convention on the Ozone Layer.  As noted, it also discusses two key environmental governance principles and their importance to government transparency and engagement of civil society: the duty to conduct environmental impact assessments and the precautionary principle.  It also references the need for enforceable environmental agreements (para. 173), certainly an important weak ingredient in international environmental law.

One thing that I didn't catch in my first reading was the significant emphasis on national environmental governance in the "Dialogue on National and Local Policies," especially the importance of the rule of law and good governance (para. 177) and reference to the growing jurisprudence of pollution law.  The listing of factors that must be considered in designing systems to protect the environment ("foresight and security, regulatory norms, timely enforcement, the elimination of corruption, effective responses to undesired side-effects of production processes, and appropriate intervention where potential or uncertain risks are involved") included considerations that have also been considered by others to be critical to effective environmental governance.

It's also been pointed out to me that the Encyclical denounces carbon trading as a form of speculation and avoidance of commitment to curbing excessive consumption (para. 171).  Strictly viewed, such wholesale condemnation seems to go overboard since pollution allowance trading schemes have proven themselves, not only in the US acid rain (SO2 trading) program but also in the context of the Montreal Protocol agreements regarding ozone layer protection (which allowed for the trading of ozone-depleting substances allowances, though they were supposed to be reduced and eventually eliminated).   And of course, carbon trading is a critical element of California's cutting-edge effort to reduce its state-wide carbon emissions.  On the other hand, many international and national schemes to trade carbon credits have been of dubious value, primarily because program/market design didn't actually ensure that there were "real" reductions in carbon emission and because there are oftentimes no effective accountability mechanisms to ensure the integrity of those system.  From that "real-world" perspective (based on how many carbon markets have operated in practice), the Encyclical's characterization is arguably spot-on and reflects the views of many critics of carbon trading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Papal Encyclical Letter on the Environment

Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment is scheduled for official public release tomorrow, Thursday, June 18. However, a leaked draft has already made its way around the web, and somebody shared it with me.  (I guess many Catholics, including at Santa Clara University, have been awaiting it eagerly.)

If the final version doesn't change much from the draft, it will be a very expansive perspective on the relationship of humans to the environment and climate change.  Interestingly, chapter 5 discusses international environmental law and governance extensively.  The chapter touches on the 1992 Rio Declaration (para. 167) , the 2012 Rio+20 Conference (para. 169) and three international environmental agreements (para. 168)-- the 1989 Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes, 1972 CITES, and the 1985 Vienna Convention on the Ozone Layer.  It also discusses at some length two key environmental governance principles and their importance to government transparency and engagement of civil society: the duty to conduct environmental impact assessments and the precautionary principle.

Most remarkable,  however, is the encyclical's critique of the effectiveness of international environmental law and treaties generally, especially failings of enforceability (para.173).  The document recognizes how critical the rule of law is to protecting the environment and that good governance in national systems is indispensable to that endeavor.

Based on a quick perusal of the encyclical, virtually all of these positions and perspectives appear to be squarely within the mainstream of what experts in the field, both scientists as well as experts on law and governance, think about the environmental issues and associated governance matters.  It is thus surprising to me that some media outlets have described the encyclical as potentially very controversial.  However, we will see soon how the public reacts to  all of this.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The US-China Climate "Deal"

It's been interesting to observe the many initial media reports on Tuesday's climate change target announcements, characterizing the joint announcements about climate targets as "deals" or "agreement." Then, after the initial media euphoria, much more criticism, both explaining that there wasn't a deal and also that China's commitment may not mean much.  (For example, Harvard's Jack Goldsmith sought to de-hype the media reports in the Lawfare blog.)

On the deal issue, a careful reading of the announcement itself indicates that the US and China's pledges were unilateral commitments that were not in themselves formally linked to each other.  So, of course not a deal in the formal sense of an agreement or a treaty.  On the other hand, a Wall Street Journal article discussing the run-up to the announcement as well as its orchestration leave little doubt that the decision to announce these goals publicly were the result of mutual reliance on the other's public announcement of future action on GHG emissions.  And that sense, the announcement represents a "deal," at least to give the public appearance of going forward in cooperation.  Either way one looks at it, though, there really was never any question that these pledges are not intended to be enforceable in any way.

Regardless, enthusiasm for the announcements, was still justified in my opinion - this level of engagement and specificity of public pledges by the US and China on climate change and their mutual engagement on the issue is historic and of critical important for the international community.

I do remain puzzled by the broad media assumption that China's pledge will simply come true, in spite of the difficulties China has had in managing and addressing its existing pollution.  Not that the 2030 peak emission goal could not be achieved, especially since it is so far out and there is so much time.  But I don't think there is real certainty, unless the underlying regulatory system is reformed in the process. Even with the anticipation of further industrial restructuring and macro-economic changes that will seek to change energy usage and supply so as to limit GHG emissions, it is not clear that that will be enough because of ongoing governance, implementation, and accountability difficulties.

But the underlying regulatory and governance challenges that have made it difficult to solve the existing pollution problems also point to an opportunity.  If China's existing pollution control laws and accountability mechanisms were to be implemented effectively, including those contained in the recent 2014 Environmental Protection Law Revisions, that could justify much greater optimism about China's GHG emission trajectory.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Joint US-China Announcement on Climate Change Targets

It's just been reported in the NY Times that US President Obama and China's President Xi Jinping made a joint announcements about greenhouse gas emission targets.  There is also already a Fact Sheet from the White House on this.  The US will reduce its GHG emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025.  China will peak CO2 emissions by 2030, with the intention to peak earlier and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of energy to around 20% by 2030.

These announcements compare with the US's 2009 Copenhagen pledge of 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 and China's pledge of 40-45% reduction in emission intensity from 2005 levels by 2020 (i.e. not a pledge to actually limit GHG emissions overall, just to slow the consumption of energy per unit of GDP).

For the US, per the Fact Sheet, this would put it on a trajectory of 80% emission cuts of 2005 levels by 2050.  For China is especially notable because it had previously never made public commitments about peaking its GHG emission, implying that it would actually start reducing emissions after that peak.  Equally important, the joint announcement is a positive sign of US-China cooperative efforts on climate change, continuing the positive cooperative effort announced by both Presidents last year regarding HFC reductions (another potent GHG).  Ideally, this joint announcement will lead to more good things, both in terms of efforts at the national level as well as cooperation in international fora, such as the UNFCCC.

But there are of course caveats to the announcement.  For one thing, it's not clear whether the reference to CO2 peaking by China was intentionally specific and designed to exclude other GHGs such as methane from the plan.  And the anticipated US reductions depend not only on the emission reductions will depend on ongoing regulatory efforts that may yet be challenged in the courts.  Keep in mind also that the base line under the Kyoto Protocol are 1990 levels of GHG emissions; so reductions from 2005 levels will look less impressive with a 1990 baseline.

One other item that struck me in the quick read of the Fact Sheet, almost a glaring omission in the list of cooperative efforts:  cooperation on environmental governance and regulation related to GHG emissions.  While the joint announcement is very positive in terms of staking out an official position for China with respect to eventual GHG emission reductions, the actually progress will only partially depend on technological advances.  China's weak environmental governance system will be a huge drag on any of the central government's domestic efforts to implement any national emission control objectives.  The sooner this impediment to emission control is recognized, the more likely it is (and the sooner) that the announced CO2 peak will actually be realized.

The omission in the announcement is also surprising because there is much that can be built upon with ongoing EPA-MEP (Ministry of Environmental Protection) cooperation on environmental law and regulation and because these positive EPA-MEP efforts were explicitly mentioned in last year's US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting.